William Downes, 1st Baron Downes

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Lord Downes by Hugh Douglas Hamilton.

William Downes, 1st Baron Downes PC (1751 – 3 March 1826) was one of the leading Irish judges of his time, and held office as Lord Chief Justice.[1]


Downes was the second son of Robert Downes of Donnybrook Castle, MP for County Kildare, and his wife Elizabeth Twigge, daughter of William Twigge; he was a grandson of Dive Downes, Bishop of Cork and Ross and his wife Catherine Fitzgerald.[2] He was related to the influential Burgh and Foster families and, through his FitzGerald grandmother, to the Earl of Kildare. He had an elder brother Dive, who took holy orders and died in 1798. Their father died when William was only three.


He graduated from the University of Dublin, was called to the Bar in 1776 and was elected a member of the Irish House of Commons for Donegal Borough in 1790. He was appointed a judge of the Court of King's Bench in 1792; on the murder of Lord Kilwarden in 1803, Downes succeeded him as Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench in Ireland.[3] He was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dublin 1806-1816.[4]

Lord Chief Justice[edit]

Downes was regarded as "the acknowledged father of the law". The low opinion held of him by his predecessor as Chief Justice, John Scott, 1st Earl of Clonmell, who called him "cunning and vain", can probably be disregarded, as Clonmell disliked and despised most of his judicial colleagues.[5] In general Downes was respected for his integrity, although his manner was stern and intimidating, and it was said that he never laughed. [6] According to Elrington Ball, after the death of Kilwarden it was generally agreed that only Downes was fit to succeed him.[7] He was one of the few judges whom Daniel O'Connell could not intimidate. At the trial of John Magee for seditious libel in 1813, O'Connell's conduct of the defence was so intemperate that another barrister said that he should have been prevented from speaking; Downes said drily that he personally regretted not having prevented O'Connell from practicing law in the first place.[8] On the other hand, Downes did let O'Connell speak in defence of his client at great length, and was severely criticised by the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Sir Robert Peel, for so doing.[9]

He retired in 1822; despite his considerable age, and the fact that he had neither wife nor children, he accepted a peerage as Baron Downes, of Aghanville in the King's County, with a special remainder to his cousin Ulysses Burgh. Ulysses was the grandson of William's aunt Anne Downes, who had married Thomas Burgh. He succeeded William as second and last Baron Downes. William lived at Booterstown, County Dublin.

Death and burial[edit]

When he died he was buried in St Anne's Church, Dublin next to his colleague William Tankerville Chamberlain (died 1802), who had been his inseparable friend for many years: "their friendship and union was complete,...and now by the desire of the survivor they lie together in the same tomb" according to the epitaph.[10]


  1. ^ Beaver Henry Blacker "William Downes" Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900 Vol. 15 p.395
  2. ^ Burke's Peerage
  3. ^ DNB
  4. ^ DNB
  5. ^ Lenox-Conyngham, Melosina Diaries of Ireland Lilliput Press Dublin 1998 p.59
  6. ^ Lenox-Conyngham p.59
  7. ^ Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 London John Murray 1926
  8. ^ Geoghegan, Patrick M. King Dan- the rise of Daniel O'Connell Gill and Macmillan Dublin 2008 p.136
  9. ^ O'Faoláin, Sean King of the Beggars - a life of Daniel O'Connell Alan Figgis 1970 p.179
  10. ^ Catalogue Note by the portrait of William Downes
Parliament of Ireland
Preceded by
Henry Hatton
Sir John Evans-Freke, Bt
Member of Parliament for Donegal Borough
With: Humphrey Butler
Succeeded by
Humphrey Butler
William Keller
Legal offices
Preceded by
The Viscount Kilwarden
Lord Chief Justice of Ireland
Succeeded by
Charles Kendal Bushe
Peerage of Ireland
New creation Baron Downes
Succeeded by
Ulysses Burgh